Posted by: Johnold Strey | February 16, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:27-32

IF YOU THINK OF SIN BUT LIGHTLY…

  1. Realize the damage it can do to you
  2. Realize the damage it can do to others

 Text: Matthew 5:27-32

Introduction

I realize that we are in the middle of Epiphany, but I spent a good chunk of last week making sure the season of Lent is ready to go here at St. Mark’s, so my mind is in “Lent planning mode.” Even with the extra services we offer during Lent, it seems like there are never enough services to get in all the good hymns for Lent. One of the hymns we’ll sing during one of the Wednesday night services this year is, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” (Christian Worship #127). Like many Lent hymns, that hymn pictures the agony and suffering Jesus endured for us as he died for our sins on the cross. One of the stanzas begins, “If you think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great, here you see its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.” To put that in plain English: If you think sin is no big deal—if you think of sin but lightly—then look at the hellish suffering Jesus endured to remove sin’s guilt from you; see how much your sin cost him!

That line came to mind as I prepared today’s sermon. Maybe that line came to mind because I was also in Lent planning mode, but in the Gospel for today, taken from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we have a very hard-hitting, soul-searching section that is bound to make you shift and squirm in your seat. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount gives us a very sober and serious examination of what sin does to a person’s heart and life. If you think of sin but lightly, Jesus warns us, then realize the damage it can do to you, and realize the damage it can do to others.

I.

New Testament Illustrations 022This is the second of three Sundays in a row where the Gospel comes from Matthew chapter five and Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” Jesus has a certain pattern he uses in this chapter as he moves from one matter to the next. Each section begins, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” Jesus first quotes the Old Testament or the rabbis’ interpretation of the Old Testament, but then he goes on to explain the full force of the Old Testament’s laws and commands which the religious teachers of his day missed so often.

At the start of the section we are considering today, Jesus shows the full extent of what God intends with the Sixth Commandment. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Someone putting their own spin on the Sixth Commandment might assume that he has obeyed it because he hasn’t had an affair. But Jesus teaches that the sins against this commandment are not just the outward actions but even the inward thoughts of the heart. With Jesus’ authoritative teaching, who would dare to suggest that he has actually kept this commandment? Jesus treats lustful thoughts as actual sin, not just some possible evil. Sins of the heart are just as much “sin” as sins in words or actions.

And yet even God’s people are prone to treat sin lightly. And so Jesus goes on to explain the great lengths one should undergo to avoid sin’s deadly destructiveness. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Jesus is speaking in hyperbole. He’s overstating his case to make a point. Gouging out eyes and chopping of limbs is not his goal. His goal is to get us to understand that anything and everything that leads us into sin must be removed from our lives! 

And why does he speak with such stark boldness? Because if we think of sin but lightly, if we fail to remove the sinful influences that lure us from him, we are gambling with our eternal salvation. As Proverbs 6:27 says, “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned?” Can we play with sin’s temptations without sin doing serious damage to our souls? Luther puts it well with these words in his comments on these verses: “It is impossible to keep the devil from shooting evil thoughts and lusts into your heart. But see to it that you do not let such arrows stick there and take root, but tear them out and throw them away. Do what one of the ancient fathers counseled long ago: ‘I cannot,’ he said, ‘keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can certainly keep it from nesting in my hair or from biting my nose off.’”

The problem comes in when we don’t take sin seriously. Oh, we take sin seriously when it’s someone else’s sin. “Oh, how awful! Why would he do such a thing?” But we need to take sin just as seriously when it is our sin. 1 Peter 5:8 describes the devil as “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” But our sinful nature pictures Satan and his temptations as a harmless little kitty cat. If you think of sin but lightly, listen up carefully! Those smutty websites you visit are dragging you into hell. That gossipy chatter you delight in is dragging you into hell. The resentfulness and hatred your harbor is dragging you into hell. That me-first selfishness that throws the leftovers into God’s offering plate is dragging you into hell. Your lukewarm attitude about God’s Word and prayer is dragging you into hell!

If you think of sin but lightly, Jesus drags you by the arm up the volcanic mountain of God’s wrath and has you peer from the top down into the fiery hellish lava beneath, and he turns to you and says with spine-shivering seriousness: “Why do think of sin so lightly! This is what your sins deserve!”

And then he jumps in.

For all the times we have thought of sin lightly, Jesus took sin seriously and willingly threw himself into hell’s fierce flames and punishment as he hung on the cross. For all the times our eyes have lusted and our lips have lied and our hearts have harbored hatred for others and apathy toward God, for all the times we have thought of sin lightly, Jesus dealt with our sin with full seriousness. He seriously and successfully kept sin out of his life, and by his sacrifice on the cross he substituted for us and saved us from the punishment for sin that would have condemned us forever.

Why does Jesus warn us about sin so sternly? Because he loves you so deeply! Because he has already done everything to forgive your sins, he has brought you to faith in him, and he wants nothing—absolutely nothing—to undo the work of salvation that his death and resurrection have accomplished. So if you think of sin but lightly, then view his sacrifice for you clearly, repent sincerely, and in the peace of forgiveness, take his warnings to heart fully.

II.

As we move on in our reading, Jesus brings up another Sixth Commandment topic, the matter of divorce. He starts out with a similar comparison, although this time he does not start out with an Old Testament quotation but with a common misinterpretation of God’s moral law: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” The rabbis of Jesus’ day did not teach what Scripture taught. They permitted divorce for just about any reason. One school of thought said that if a man found any reason to be displeased with his wife, he could divorce her. Another school of thought said that if a man found another woman that he wanted for his wife, he could divorce his present wife. The rabbis seemed only to be concerned with following the proper process, not the proper will of God.

Jesus’ words in this matter show that one person’s sin can damage another. Most English translations are misleading, and the one we’re using today is no exception. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” It sounds like the innocent party in the divorce case is sinning. It is difficult to translate the grammar of this sentence into smooth English, but what Jesus is getting at is that a husband who unjustly divorces his wife makes his wife appear to be guilty of adultery, and a man who then marries the woman might also appear to be guilty of adultery even though he is not. Jesus’ meaning here shows concern that innocent parties are not made to look like they are guilty of sin when they are not. Someone may observe the divorce and the new marriage from a distance and think, “Oh, this is the reason the marriage broke up. This is the man who broke up the marriage.” Jesus’ concern is that sinful actions by one person could do damage to others.

God has given us the Eighth Commandment for a reason. He devotes an entire commandment to protecting people’s reputations. When we fail to do that, we can inflect serious damage to another person unfairly. Children, when you are at school you do serious harm to your classmates when you think they’re “weird” and call them names or make fun of them just because they’re different than you are. And unfortunately we adults don’t always give up those childish ways. We also jump to conclusions about others when we only have a fraction of information about them. We can assume someone is rude or uncaring or faithless or a host of other hurtful assumptions. And what good comes from these assumptions? None at all!

It is not difficult to detect the negative vibes we have toward someone else. It is not hard for others to make their own assumptions based on those vibes. It is not hard for the person we have made assumptions about to feel unloved, unwanted, and uncared for. Our sinful assumptions can do serious damage to others, and how horrible it is when that happens.

Reputations are sensitive. That is why God protects them with their own commandment. That is why it is such a crime to God when we think of sin but lightly and allow our words and actions to damage another person.

But Jesus did not take our sin lightly. He went to the cross and endured the fires of hell for you because he was concerned for your status—not your status or reputation before the world, but your status before his Father in heaven. Jesus shed his blood on Calvary’s cross and has now sent his Spirit into your heart so that your eternal status before God would not be “condemned sinner,” but “redeemed and loved saint.” Jesus won forgiveness for the entire world and now his Holy Spirit fills your heart with faith that trusts in his forgiveness so that the judgment gavel of God comes with a “not guilty” verdict. Jesus defeated death and hell for all and gives eternal life to all his baptized believers, and through our baptismal faith we bear his record of perfection—perfection that erases the guilt every damaging word and negative vibe and hurtful action and all the rest for all eternity.

Conclusion

Jesus was frequently described as someone who preached with great authority, not as the other teachers of his day. And he does! He teaches with an authority that doesn’t redefine sin, but that exposes and condemns sin. But he also showers us with a love that removes sin, not by removing us from his presence, but by removing sin’s guilt from our hearts in his eyes. Washed in his blood, forgiven by his cross, adopted at his font and fed at his altar, is there any doubt that as we walk out these doors, we will not “think of sin but lightly”? Is there any doubt that our forgiving Lord has inspired us to fight against sin? There is no doubt that we will rejoice in the Savior who took sin seriously for us and has defeated it eternally for us. Amen.

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